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OP-ED: The Nexus Between Women and Development

UNITED NATIONS, May 23 2013 (IPS) - Every three years since 2007, a global advocacy organisation called Women Deliver has convened an international conference to talk about issues relating to the health and well-being of girls and women.

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, has been privileged to participate in these conferences, and looks forward to joining multilateral organisations, NGOs and global leaders for the third Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur this weekend.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin. Credit: UNFPA

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin. Credit: UNFPA

Our focus this year will be on two issues that affect not just women and girls, but development in general, because research shows that voluntary family planning and maternal health are two key vectors for lifting developing nations out of poverty.

We will unveil new initiatives for each and seek to galvanise the world community for both programmatic and financial support. UNFPA has promoted voluntary family planning since it began operations in 1969, and if we have learned anything in the decades since, it is that the ability of women to plan when and at what intervals they will have children is essential to national progress in everything from education to health to economic prosperity.

Equally important, we have learned that family planning is about more than just condoms and other family planning commodities. It’s about human rights, information and education.

At the Women Deliver conference, UNFPA will launch a new partnership with the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to increase access to family planning in some of the world’s most hard-to-reach areas. In cooperation with IPPF, we will seek to galvanise political commitments from 13 nations with statistically low contraceptive prevalence rates in order to increase support for programmes to educate women and men about the benefits of family planning.

UNFPA’s second major initiative will actually take place in the days leading up to Women Deliver, when we will co-host a symposium on the crucial, frontline role midwives play in lowering maternal deaths, reducing disabilities related to childbirth, and improving overall national health indicators.

More than 230 midwives will be joined by leading U.N. agencies, civil society representatives, policy makers and officials from donor nations to discuss ways to increase the numbers and improve the skills of midwives in developing countries.

At the symposium, UNFPA, alongside its partners from Intel, the World Health Organization and Jhpiego, the NGO affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, will roll out a new online training module for frontline maternal health workers to help train them to deal with issues such as pre-eclampsia, excessive post-birth bleeding and prolonged and obstructed labour. These medical complications can be matters of life and death for women giving birth in the developing world, so this is a critically important initiative.

But it is clear that these family planning and maternal health initiatives will succeed only if they are embraced by government leaders in a position to fund and support them. And there are often obstacles to that embrace.

The first obstacle, of course, is money. Governments struggling to meet the basic needs of their citizens face severe competition for scarce resources. But family planning and maternal health are so critically important to long-term development that they should be among the top spending priorities for developing nations’ governments.

And because helping underdeveloped nations rise out of poverty is so vital to international security and the global economy, voluntary family planning and maternal health should be investment priorities for developed nations as well.

The second obstacle standing in the way of family planning initiatives, in particular, are some cultural practices. The sad fact is that some societies still deny the human rights of half of their populations in the name of cultural traditions that do physical, social and psychological damage to women and girls.

As UNFPA sees it, the time has long passed when men can or should be allowed to dictate the reproductive rights of women. Young girls should not be forced into marriage. Sex should always be un-coerced. And every woman should have the means to enjoy her human right and freedom to choose if or when she will have children, and how many she will have.

We will be raising these issues at Women Deliver in Kuala Lumpur, and I hope all who attend will come away from the conference with a re-energised commitment to the central role these issues play in humanity’s future and to address the challenges of family planning and maternal health forthrightly.

*Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is a United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

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